One Bad Day

"All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That's how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day."
- Joker, The Killing Joke [written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Brian Bolland]


1) This story is set in the Wormverse, which is owned by Wildbow. Thanks for letting me use it.

2) I will follow canon as closely as I can. If I find something that canon does not cover, I will make stuff up. If canon then refutes me, I will revise. Do not bother me with fanon; corrections require citations.

3) I will accept any legitimate criticism of my work. However, I reserve the right to ignore anyone who says "That's wrong" without showing how it is wrong, and suggesting how it can be made right. Posting negative reviews from an anonymous account is a good way to have said reviews deleted.

A/N 1: This is an AU; as such, the character Hardcase has the powers of Browbeat.
A/N 2: This fic has depictions of a) suicide by hanging, b) someone being mindwiped into a drooling puddle, c) teenagers kissing, and d) a vaguely-worded inference to teenagers having sex. You have been warned.

Part One: Precursors

PRT HQ, Washington DC
Thursday, December 2, 2010

Chief Director Rebecca Costa-Brown put the phone on speaker and leaned back. "What is it?"

"Ma'am, we have reports that the Simurgh is on the move."

She sat up so abruptly that, if not for her ability to fly, she would have sent the chair over. "Is it an attack?"

"Uncertain as yet, ma'am. She seems to be holding a steady altitude. But she's moving to a different location."

"Where is that location?"

"It seems to be somewhere over northern New England. Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire. Maybe even Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island or New York."

"That's a lot of area. With a lot of big cities."

"Yes, ma'am. We're working to get more details."

"Let me know the moment you've got something."

"Yes, ma'am."

High above Brockton Bay, the Simurgh let a smile play over her lips. She could not see the present; only the future or the past was clear to her. But to a being with her capabilities, the future was endlessly malleable. Not that what she was about to do was any great challenge to her. The merest of nudges would sent events tumbling like dominoes in the direction that she desired.

She exerted her power; far below, subtle divergences were set in motion.

Brockton Bay
Friday Night, December 3, 2010

Lisa looked up at the roof edge. "I think we lost her."

Grue coughed. "Good. How bad is it?"

"Let me get you into the light so I can have a look." With her assistance, he complied. Carefully, she unzipped his jacket and peeled his shirt away from the wounds; one in front, one in back. Under the yellow glare, his skin had the appearance of anthracite, and the blood looked purplish. But even in the poor light, she didn't like how much he was bleeding.

"It's not great," she muttered. "But if we keep pressure on it and get you to an emergency room -"

"No." He grunted with the pain. "Get me home, stitch me up. Emergency rooms have to call the cops for wounds like this, and I'll be helpless."

She tried again. "The boss. He's got to have doctors for this sort of thing. I'll call him."

"Yeah, good idea." She didn't like how faint his voice was getting. "Do it."

Making sure that he had his hands pressed firmly on the pad of cloth over each wound, she wiped the blood from her hands and pulled out her phone. There was no signal; she glanced at Grue, who gave her a nod, so she moved off down the alleyway. Finally, at the exit on to the street, she got some bars.


"It's me. Shadow Stalker ambushed us. Grue's hurt. We need medical attention."


She gave him the address. "But tell them to hurry. I don't like the way he's bleeding."

"I'll do my best."

Ending the call, she hurried back toward where she'd left Grue. He's going to be okay. He's going to be okay.

He was still there, slumped up against the dumpster where she'd left him. But there was someone in the alley with him now; a cloaked figure that Lisa knew all too well. As Lisa watched, the figure extended an arm toward Grue.

"No!" Lisa scrabbled for her pistol, but the blood crusting on her fingers made her a second too slow. There was the sound of an impact; Brian jerked as the arrow struck him in the middle of the chest. Shadow Stalker turned, just as Lisa brought up the pistol. Lisa fired four shots, as fast as she could. She thought she may have scored with one of them, but Shadow Stalker simply went to her immaterial form, laughter trailing away as she did so.

The vigilante turned Ward leaped upward, almost flying as she jumped from side to side of the alley in her shadow form. She paused at the top, and Lisa saw her go solid once more. Two words drifted back down to her. "You're next." Another mocking laugh, and Shadow Stalker was gone.

Lisa ran to Grue's side. More blood was welling around the arrow in his chest. Kneeling beside him, she unfastened his helmet strap and lifted it off. His eyes were dimming, but he focused on her.

"Lisa …" he whispered.

There were tears in her eyes. She'd never been all that close to Brian, but he had been her team leader, and he'd never been an asshole to her. "Brian. I'm sorry. Shouldn't have left you."

"Not … your fault. Need you … do something … for me."

She gritted her teeth. "I'll take her down, once and for all. She won't get away with this."

His breathing was obviously painful, and he was fading fast. "Not … her. Sister. Aisha." He began to say something else, but got as far as "T-" before he lost the impetus. The breath stopped rasping in his throat.

Uselessly, Lisa checked for a pulse in his throat. There was none. Her power filled in what he had been about to say. Take care of her.

"I'll do that," she promised him. "I'll do that for you." Carefully, she closed his eyes, then kissed him gently on the forehead. Then she set about working the arrow from his chest. She knew that she was making it harder to prove that Shadow Stalker had murdered him, but she wasn't interested in police procedure and trials. I'll find her and shove this into her guts myself.

Getting up, she stumbled from the alleyway.

Three blocks away, Sophia Hess muttered curses as she tightened the bandage on to the wound. The bitch had gotten her in the right shoulder. While the bullet had missed bone, it had punched a hole through the deltoid, making it almost impossible to use the arm for anything. Such as shooting a certain smartass bitch right between the eyes.

"You'll get yours," she muttered. But I won't be able to go out on patrol until this heals. Maybe I'll kick Hebert around a little more at school to make up for it. Under her mask, a cruel smile spread across her face. "Yeah, that sounds like fun."

But first, I have to make sure nobody pins this on me.

Fifteen minutes later, she was back at the scene. Tattletale was nowhere around, which disappointed Sophia just a little. I'd like to pay her back for this hole in my shoulder.

But there were more important things to take care of. Such as the body with the arrow-holes in it. Cops see this, they'll know who did it. I can't go to juvey.

Rummaging one-handed through the dumpster, she came up with the perfect tool; a length of broomstick, broken off with a jagged point. Poising herself over the body, she slammed the pointed end down into the wound, driving it deep, twisting the wood so as to obliterate all traces of the previous arrow wound. Pulling it out, she repeated with the other one. Then she jammed it back into the first hole, leaving it standing like an obscene flagpole.

Okay, that's the evidence taken care of. Now to pin it on someone else.

It was a little awkward to tear open his shirt one-handed – left-handed at that – but she managed it. He had a magnificent set of abs, she noted. Pity he had to die. Taking another arrow, she dragged it across his flesh, moving outward from where the broomstick jutted upward from the wound that had killed him. The sharp metal parted his skin cleanly, leaving a straight line.

After this, nobody will believe they didn't do it.

It was a little before midnight when Vicky spotted the dark-cloaked form leaning over the body. Swiftly, she dropped down into the alleyway. "Hey, what do you think you're doing?"

The cape turned, a little awkwardly. She – it was a teenage girl, maybe Vicky's age – had a bandage on her right shoulder, stained with blood. "Hey, hey, easy. I'm on your side. Shadow Stalker, of the Wards."

Vicky landed lightly on the garbage-strewn ground. "Sorry, didn't recognise you for a moment. What happened here?"

Shadow Stalker nodded to the body. "Saw a bunch of Empire guys attacking this one. I jumped in to help, but one of them shot me." Her left hand, the fingers of the glove blood-stained, reached up to touch her right shoulder. "By the time I got my head together, they'd done this to him and bolted. I was gonna call it in, just as soon as I finished bandaging myself."

"Shit." Vicky shook her head. "That's gotta suck. Is he -"

"No, that's what I was just checking." Shadow Stalker sounded upset; Vicky didn't blame her.

She grimaced as she looked down at him. He lay there next to a dumpster, arms splayed out, eyes closed. Save for the broomstick protruding upward from his chest, he could have been asleep.

Murder always affected her a little bit; someone who had been living, probably a good person, with friends and family. Ended. Finished. He looked like he had been a nice guy. Handsome, certainly.

Even without Shadow Stalker's testimony, it wouldn't have been hard to determine who had done the deed. They had as much as signed their work. Looking down at the swastika that had been carved across the young man's chest, Vicky made a private vow.

I'll find out which one of them did this to you, and make them pay.

The Dallon Household
Saturday, December 4, 2010

I turn forty in a few days.

Mark Dallon sat on the sofa, oblivious to Vicky's chatter as she worked out a homework problem with Amy. The TV, unnoticed, played out its artificial dramas in front of him.

What have I really done with my life?

He looked around the living room, but he didn't see it as a record of his accomplishments. Instead, it appeared to him as a litany of failures. Fleur died because I didn't think far enough ahead about the possible dangers of unmasking. The New Wave movement failed because of that.

It should have been a great and glorious legacy. Capes unmasking across the nation, proving that they were human, that they were ready to take on the responsibility of their actions. Instead, because of his short-sightedness, Fleur was dead and Lightstar had quit.

Because of his failures.

And I'll be forty in a few days, and I'll have accomplished what?

The dark thoughts continued to circulate in his head, but he showed no outward sign of them.

Some days, it's barely worth the effort to get out of bed.

The Undersiders' Base
Sunday, December 5, 2010

When Lisa saw the caller ID on her phone, she didn't want to answer it. But she saw no way out of it. "Hello?"

"Hello, Tattletale." It was, of course, Coil.

"What's going on?"

"I received your report that Shadow Stalker killed Grue. You have my condolences."

"Yeah, uh, thanks. I'll pass that on to the others."

"You are aware that she successfully disguised the killing as an Empire Eighty-Eight murder, yes?"

"What? No. No, that's not right. She should go down for this."


"What?" But she knew already.

"You will not target Shadow Stalker. You will not find out her secret identity. You will have nothing to do with her. Am I clear?"

She found herself getting angry. "But she murdered Grue!"

"And he could have died at the hands of Kaiser or Lung, had the circumstances been different. If you find out who she is, the chances are that you will take rash action that will probably endanger the smooth running of the Undersiders. Killing a Ward would bring all the forces of the Protectorate and PRT down on your heads. Publicly outing her would be almost as bad."

"But I -"

"Will do nothing. That's an order."

There was no arguing with him, she realised.

" … yes, sir."

Winslow High
Monday, December 6, 2010

"Watch it, Hebert!"

Taylor didn't have a chance to get out of the way; she was slammed into the locker as Sophia body-checked her, hard. A padlock gouged into her hip painfully, then she turned with her back to the metal, bringing her hands up defensively.

Sophia sneered. "What are you gonna do, Hebert? Fight me? You?" She stood there, flanked by Emma and Madison, supremely confident. The only jarring note was the fact that her right arm was in a sling.

The words came out of Taylor's mouth before she could stop them. "I don't want to fight."

"Wimps never do." Sophia stepped up to her; before Taylor could react, Sophia rammed the heel of her left hand against the taller girl's breastbone, driving her back against the locker again. "And before you get any ideas, Hebert, I can beat your ass just as easily with one arm as with two." Her expression made it clear that she was looking forward to it.

Panicking, Taylor kicked out at Sophia; the black girl easily evaded the attack, then drove her own knee up into Taylor's stomach. Her world going red around the edges, Taylor doubled over, coughing and retching.

Emma watched as Sophia grabbed Taylor by the hair. Sophia was just preparing to drive her knee up into Taylor's face when Emma put a hand on her arm. "Maybe you better not."

Sophia turned to look at her. "What? You getting to be a weak sister again, like the wimp here?"

"No." Emma shook her head. "But if you do that, she'll have actual real injuries she can show Blackwell."

Sophia curled her lip. "Clumsy bitch tripped and fell down the stairs."

Emma shook her head. "Dad says visible injuries are bad. They make it a lot harder to disprove a claim."

With a grimace, Sophia let Taylor go; the skinny girl sank to her knees, still unable to breathe properly. "It's your lucky day, bitch. See you in PE class."

As they moved away, Madison piped up. "So Sophia, what happened to your arm anyway?"

Sophia turned to glare at her. "Strained my shoulder. Got a problem with that?"

"No, no problem."

Wow, thought Emma. Sophia's being even more of a hardass than normal.

But so long as it wasn't aimed at her, she didn't have an issue with it.

The Dallon Household
Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"Where's your father gotten to?"

Amy looked up from the magazine she was reading. "I'm sorry?"

Carol Dallon's lips tightened slightly. "I said, do you know where your father's gotten to? It's time for him to open his presents, and he's wandered off somewhere. Not to mention Victoria."

"I think she said something to Dean about showing him something in her room," Amy ventured. "But I'm not sure where Dad is. I can go find him if you want."

"Please do," Carol snapped; her tone made it clear that the 'please' was just a courtesy. "And tell Vicky and Dean to get down here as well. These presents aren't going to open themselves, you know."

"Okay." Amy got up, dropping the magazine on the chair. She wandered out of the living room and into the kitchen. Mark Dallon wasn't there. Carol's office was toward the back of the house, but the door was closed; she couldn't think of a reason that he'd be in there, so she turned her sights upward.

Climbing the stairs, she checked the bathroom door; it was open, and nobody was in there. Her parents' bedroom door was closed; she knocked gently, then opened it a crack. He wasn't in there, either. Where is he? She frowned. He wouldn't have gone out on patrol on his own. Oh well, I'll check downstairs again. But while I'm up here …

Distracted by the thought of where Mark might be, she didn't bother knocking on Vicky's bedroom door before she opened it. "Vicky, Dean, Mom says -"

That was as far as she got.

Vicky and Dean were entwined on the bed. Their eyes were closed; the looks on their faces showed what may have been agony, but she was fairly sure it was the opposite. Amy, like any curious teenager, had looked at porn more than once, but even if she hadn't, she would have recognised a sex act when she saw one. Right now, she was seeing more of Vicky than she had in quite some time, and far more of Dean than she ever wanted to see. Her eyes opened wide, burning the image into her brain forever more.

Both Vicky and Dean turned to look at her, their faces identical masks of horror.

Pulling the door closed with a bang, she fled down the corridor. Her face flamed red as she tried to expunge what she'd seen from her brain. Dean and Vicky. Oh, god. I can't handle this right now. Her illicit attraction toward Vicky had been bad enough when she'd thought that Vicky and Dean were just at the hand-holding stage. But now their relationship was obviously much more than that. The knowledge tore her heart in two. Vicky, Vicky, I love you more than he ever could. Can't you see that?

Downstairs she stumbled, past the kitchen, into the back of the house. Carol might have said something as she passed by, but Amy had neither the will nor the wit to answer her right now. I can't think. I need to be alone.

Pushing open the door to Carol's study, she lurched inside. It was cool and dark in here. That was good. She could gather herself, pretend to be a good daughter even while she was dying inside.

The creak alerted her; she finally looked up. In the dimness, she could see the dangling form.

She knew what it was, even as her hand went to the light switch. Frantically, she tried to stop her fingers from flipping the tiny plastic nub, but over it went. Light flared dramatically around Mark Dallon's head and shoulders.

He had used a belt. Tied it to the sturdy light fitting, then just … stepped off the desk.

All of that went through her mind in one searing moment. Looking up at him, silhouetted against the light, she could still see his suffused face, the protruding tongue. She didn't want to, but she reached out. One of his carpet slippers had fallen off. Her hand touched his bare foot.

He was still alive.

Not aware, not conscious. There was barely any brain activity at all. But there was life. He could live, but as a vegetable.

What sort of a life would that be?

I should save him, keep him alive.

Would he thank me for that?

Then the decision was taken from her hands as the last fleeting echo of life fled forever, leaving her with her hand on a corpse. With a thump, she backed up against the door, her shoulders hard against the wood. Then she began to scream.

Brockton Bay
Thursday, December 9, 2010

Lisa eyed the teenage girl strutting down the street. Lime-green tights, near-microscopic top and shorts, a purple streak through her hair. That's Aisha, all right. She didn't need her power to figure out that the girl considered herself one tough cookie. This is not gonna be a fun conversation.

Crossing the street ahead of Aisha, she slowed her pace until the younger girl was almost alongside her. Aisha glanced at her once as she passed, then again as Lisa increased speed to stay level with her.

I'll have to get her attention fast, or she'll brush me off. "Aisha? I've got news about your brother."

That certainly got the girl's attention. "What? Who the fuck are you?"

Lisa took a deep breath. "My name's Lisa. I'm a friend of his."

"Well, you can go and tell him to get fucked. He was gonna take me to the Boardwalk on the weekend and he never showed." Aisha looked her up and down. "You his latest? He send you to grovel for him?"

"No, I'm not his girlfriend. I … I was his teammate."

Aisha tilted her head. "Teammate? What, in that martial arts thing he does?"

This is harder than I expected it to be. "Aisha, I've got some bad news for you. About Brian. Why he couldn't make it."

The younger girl stopped, putting her hands on her hips. "Can't wait to hear this one. He better be fuckin' dead, or next time I see him, I'm gonna kick his ass so fuckin' hard …"

Lisa grimaced. The pain and loss were still raw. "Aisha, he is dead. He was murdered on Friday night. I'm sorry. I'm really sorry."

Abruptly, she found herself sitting on the pavement, half-leaning against a shop-front. What the fuck just happened?

Aisha was just getting up as Lisa began to get her bearings back. The younger girl offered a hand; still a little dazed, Lisa accepted it. Aisha grunted, but managed to heave Lisa to her feet. "Okay then."

"Okay what?" Lisa was still having trouble tracking.

"Okay, now you're gonna tell me who, what, where and how. Brian mighta been an irritating douche, but he was my big brother, and nobody kills my big brother and gets away with it."

Lisa shook her head. "That's not a good idea."

She found herself slammed against the shop-front, with Aisha's fists tangled in the front of her top. Aisha's face, with tears trickling unheeded down her cheeks, was mere inches from hers. "Fuckin' tell me."

"All right. Let's go get something to eat, and I'll tell you."

The outdoor cafe was a little upscale from what Aisha was used to eating at, but Lisa was buying so she didn't give a shit. She found a table that was far enough away that nobody else would be able to hear what they were saying, and plunked herself down while Lisa did the ordering.

She didn't think she'd want anything to eat, but the sugar-powdered doughnuts smelled so good that she took a bite from one; before she knew it, she'd polished off two and was reaching for a third. With an effort of will, she pushed it away and turned to Lisa. "Okay. Give. Spill. I wanna know everything. What he was doing, who killed him. Why he was killed."

"Even knowing about what happened is dangerous -" Lisa began.

Aisha wasn't having any of it. "Fuck that. Brian was my brother. You owe me this."

She had to give the blonde some credit for persistence. "The last thing he said to me was to take care of you. If I told you who did it, you'd go after them. And that's likely to get you killed."

"I said fuck that!" Aisha hit the table with her fist. Lisa barely managed to capture her teacup before it would have tipped. "I want fucking details."

Lisa took a deep breath. "Okay. To start with, did you know Brian had powers?"

Aisha blinked. "Fuck. No. He was holding out on me. What sort of powers?"

"Darkness generation. He could generate it, like a cloud. He could see through it, but nobody else could. He was working as a supervillain. Grue, of the Undersiders. Making money to keep you out of your mother's hands." Lisa eyed her. "You never guessed?"

"Fuck. This is all news to me." Aisha shook her head. "I just thought he was good at finding part-time work."

Lisa shrugged slightly. "Depends on what you'd call 'part-time work'."

"Yeah, point. So, how'd he die?"

"You sure you want to know?" Lisa's expression was concerned.

Aisha didn't bother answering; the look she sent across the table was good enough.

Lisa sighed. "Okay, fine. It was Shadow Stalker."

"What, the vigilante?"

"Yeah. Well, no, she's a Ward now." Lisa wouldn't look her in the eye. "She had it in for Brian. She's supposed to be using non-lethal arrows, but she shot him with a real one. It was just a wound, but a bad one. When I was calling for help, she circled back around and murdered him."

"Fuck." Aisha smacked the table again; the cutlery rattled. "You know who she really is? Where she lives?"

Lisa shook her head. "No. And I've been told not to find out. My boss doesn't want us getting into a pissing match with the Protectorate."

"No, no, no, fuck that." Aisha was looking more pissed by the second. "We don't just let this fucking bitch murder my brother and walk away."

Lisa began to get worried. Aisha's not about to let this go. If she starts running around shooting her mouth off, she could get me in serious trouble. Worse, Shadow Stalker could find out and decide to target her. "Aisha, I -"

She blinked. What was I saying? She'd been in a fugue, thinking about Brian's death. Talking to myself. It's the first sign of madness.

Plucking a sugar-sprinkled doughnut off the plate, she took a bite, then washed it down with a sip of tea. What was I doing again? But try as she might, she couldn't remember. Oh well, it'll come to me.

Unnoticed, one of the remaining doughnuts disappeared.

Brockton Bay Cemetery
Sunday, December 12, 2010

" … a faithful husband and a loving father, who was taken from his family all too soon …"

The priest droned on, but Amy tuned him out. She stood, dressed in black, alongside Vicky and Carol, in her own personal pool of misery and guilt. Carol's air of disapproval was stronger than normal, while Vicky was having trouble keeping her aura in check. Flashes of fear, almost subliminal, came and went, but Amy ignored those. She knew what Vicky was really thinking; it was plain in her eyes.

She thinks I could have saved him.

I really should have. He was the only member of this family who didn't have something I desperately wanted but could not have, or who wasn't making impossible demands of me.

Part of her tried to use logic to overcome her guilt. It was a losing battle. Even if I had saved him, brain death was setting in. He'd never have been more than a drooling hulk.

Unless I fixed his brain.

Brutal honesty cut in then. Could I have? I've never fixed a brain before. I don't know if I could bring someone back from that close to death, make their brain all better.

But I didn't even try. Closing her eyes, she let the hot, stinging tears slip from between the lids. I let him die while I agonised over the choice. Some superhero I am. Some daughter I am.

The guilt was almost more than she could bear.

"Ames, I gotta talk to you."

Amy looked around; the small crowd was dispersing to their cars. Some of the capes were walking to the edge of the cemetery then flying off. Carol was being consoled by Lady Photon and Manpower, a little way away. Vicky was the only one near to her; even Dean, in costume as Gallant, was standing off to give them privacy.

I want to talk to you too. I want to tell you how much I love you. But she wouldn't. She couldn't. She knew that. Coward.

"Uh, what about?" she asked dully, but she knew already. Here it comes.

"Was Dad still alive when you found him?"

Oh, shit. It's worse than I thought. For a long, fatal moment, she hesitated.

"He was, wasn't he?" Vicky's voice was full of suspicion. "Did you let him die?"

Amy took a deep breath. "He was almost dead. He slipped away just as I touched him. But -"

"But you could've saved him." Vicky stared at her. "Why didn't you? Didn't you love him?"

Guilt, fed by Vicky's words, wracked her very soul. "I did. I did love him. But if he'd lived – if I'd even managed to save him – he would've been a drooling imbecile. His brain had been starved of oxygen for too long, and -"

"But you could've fixed that, too." There was certainty in her sister's tone.

"I don't know!" Amy hissed the last word. "I've never done that before! I might've failed! He might've come back wrong! There's so many things that can go really badly wrong when you're dealing with the brain!" Her voice didn't get any louder, but it was much more intense; out of the corner of her eye, she saw Dean's head come up. He can feel my emotions. He could probably feel them if he was in Boston.

"But you still could've tried." Vicky was implacable.

Amy wanted to scream, to pull her hair out. Vicky just didn't understand. "I don't do brains for a reason." Gritting her teeth, she told her first lie. "I – I don't really think I could have saved him. He was too far gone."

Vicky stared at her. "Then why didn't you do it earlier?"

Oh, god. Here it comes. But she had to play dumb, not give any indication how often her own mind had been over this territory. "Earlier?"

"You knew he had chronic depression. You could've fixed that, yeah?"

A matter of brain chemistry. Easily. "Vicky, I don't do brains for a reason. I've never done that sort of thing before. And I wasn't going to experiment on my Dad."

Vicky's voice was bitter. "So because of your precious principles, Dad's dead. Gone. Because you don't work with brains." She made it sound so petty.

Please don't go there. But Vicky already had. Amy took a deep breath. I don't want to say this, but you're hurting me too much. "You could have stopped it, too."

Jolted, Vicky stared at her. "What? What do you mean?"

Amy forced herself to meet her sister's eyes. "He listened to you. You could've made him take his meds. And when it happened … Dean was over. Why didn't he pick up on what Dad was about to do, through his emotions?" She knew the answer. They both did. Because you were distracting him with your body.

It wasn't often that she saw Vicky on the back foot. "I -" Involuntarily, her sister glanced around at Carol. "You haven't told Mom, have you?"

"No, I haven't. But I don't know that I shouldn't." She might ban you from seeing Dean. The thought gave her a guilty thrill.

Vicky's eyes widened. "No. Don't. Please don't. I'll do your homework for a month."

One kiss. That's all I ask. Just one kiss. But Amy knew that, given that opening, her demands would never cease. I want you so badly that I don't dare open that can of worms. "Save it. Just don't bug me any more, okay?"

Vicky's look of relief was almost comical. "Sure thing. Subject dropped, over and out. We good?"

Amy managed a wan smile and hugged Vicky. She felt her sister's arms going around her. The contact felt good; too good. Vicky must be letting her aura slip again. The urge to just reach up and kiss her sister was almost overpowering, but she repressed it. It would ruin everything.

"Yeah," she murmured. "We're good."


Brockton Bay
Monday, December 13, 2010

Taylor swung down off the bus and started on the two-block walk to her house. Oh god, I am so glad that it's only one week till Christmas vacation. She limped a little as she walked, courtesy of bruises acquired from impacts with a wide variety of things; lockers, walls, a door, the floor, desks and so forth. Sophia had been getting particularly vicious of late; however, getting anything done about it was proving to be nigh-impossible.

I just have to tough it out till Christmas. Then I can relax, if only for a few days. And maybe afterward Sophia will find someone else to torment. Deep down, she knew that this was merely wishful thinking, but she refused to let that thought surface. Instead, another one bobbed up.

Maybe I should tell Dad.

She wasn't quite sure what he could do for her. Emma was certain to lie to cover for Sophia and herself, and Mr Barnes had been Dad's friend for years and years. He might even believe Emma over me. This was one of the reasons she had been reluctant to tell him what was going on to this point. Another was the deep-down knowledge that when things got really bad after Mom had died, he had … folded. Given up. Failed her.

But this time might be different. This time, he might actually be able to stand up and help me.

She clung to that thought all the way home. Maybe he can help.

Danny moved the papers around on the kitchen table, then wrote a figure in the corner of one. It was a depressingly small figure. Compressing his lips, he wrote down more figures, drew a line under them, and added them up. It was still a depressingly small figure, but a little less grim than before.

The front door clicked open, and Taylor entered. "Hi, Dad," she greeted him.

"Hi, Taylor." He didn't look up.

"Dad, I -" She paused. "What's the matter?"

He pushed his glasses back up his nose to their proper place, then looked at her. She looked serious, as always. "Taylor, come sit down for a moment."

Obediently, she came and pulled out a chair. "Dad, what's up? You're scaring me."

He took a deep breath. "Taylor, you need to know that the Dockworkers are going through some hard times."

Behind her glasses, her eyes widened. "Dad – have you been fired?"

Hastily, he shook his head. "No, thank God. They're always going to need a head of hiring. Even if there's nobody to hire. But there's less money coming in, so we've all had to accept pay cuts. So we're going to have to tighten our belts a little."

"Uh … what does that mean?"

He grimaced. "It means that we can't really afford to do anything special over Christmas, kiddo. And I might have to sell the car. I'm sorry. But with the price of gasoline being what it is …"

But she was already nodding. "Right, right, I got it. Bus only."

"Yeah." He smiled wearily. "Bus only." He paused. "Did you want something?"

"No, it's fine, Dad. Nothing, really."

Standing up, she turned and went out into the entrance hall; a moment later, he heard her climbing the stairs. He shifted his attention back to the papers, trying to squeeze more dollars out of the numbers there.

It was, he suspected, a futile exercise.

The Undersiders' Base
Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Just like the last time, when Lisa saw the caller ID on her phone, she didn't want to answer it. He's assigning the team a new leader. But she saw no way out of it. "Hello?"

"Hello, Tattletale."

"It's a bad idea."

He showed no sign of surprise that she had divined the reason that he had called. "Explain."

"It's either too soon or too late. If you'd sent a new leader in immediately after Grue died, he could have helped us through the grieving process. Learned about how we work as a team. Or you could have waited a few more weeks, until we had gotten over the shock."

"The only person who's going through a grieving process is you. Regent and Bitch don't really care. They just need someone to tell them what to do."

"And why can't I be that person? They do what I tell them."

"That's the bad idea that you were referring to earlier. I know how ambitious you are. I simply can't trust you to be in charge of the Undersiders and not turn them to work against me."

"Boss -"

"My mind is made up. Your new leader will be arriving within the week."

"Can you give me anything to go on, so I can let the others know?"

"Just this. Consider his orders to be my orders. If I know you, you've gotten a taste for independence. But if I find that you've been insubordinate to him, I will be displeased. If anything untoward happens to him and I find that you're at fault … expect me to be very displeased."

Lisa swallowed. She wasn't quite sure what Coil being very displeased would result in, and she didn't want to find out the hard way. "Okay. Um. Sure. Can I at least get a name?"

"He goes by the name Hardcase. Don't bother looking on the PHO boards for a file; he doesn't have one yet."

He did know her all too well. "Uh, right. Hardcase."

"Just remember, his orders are my orders. And if anything happens to him …" He didn't need to finish the sentence.

"I'll keep that in mind."

"See that you do."

Brockton Bay
Wednesday Night, December 15, 2010

Sophia flexed her shoulder experimentally. It was still a little sore, but it seemed to have healed all right. Nearly two weeks out of commission. Seriously, why couldn't Piggy have talked to Panacea or someone? I could've been out there kicking ass long ago.

Taking a running leap, she turned to shadow and let herself glide to the next building. Returning to solid form, she stuck the landing and ran across the rooftop to the other side. Another leap, another long glide. Oh, yeah. I still got it.

Her Wards phone rang. She ignored it. That'll be Kid Loser calling to bitch about how I ditched him to patrol solo. He can suck it.

Another sound caught her attention; this time it was a burglar alarm. A break-in? Just what I need for a nice warm-up.

Aisha glanced back over her shoulder, then quickened her pace slightly. Behind her, the three Empire Eighty-Eight skinheads kept up, even closing the gap slightly. She did her best to make her movements appear panicky. Come on, take the bait …

And then, up ahead, three more turned the corner. She pretended not to see them, hurrying forward. The ones behind kept coming. This is gonna be close.

There. The liquor store shop-front she was looking for. It even had an alcove. She ducked in there, picking up the pry-bar she had left there several hours before.

"You really didn't think you could hide in here, did you?" The guy who seemed to be in charge of the skinheads had a couple of swastika tattoos and several missing teeth.

The original plan had been to act meek and scared, but Aisha had found that she just couldn't do that. So she went with being herself. "Fuck you, asshole," she spat, brandishing the pry-bar. "You can bite me."

"I'll do more than bite you, you little black whore," he grunted, moving forward. "You're gonna fuckin' pay toll. And then you're gonna pay for that little comment."

"You fuckin' wish." She relaxed her control over her power then. It never got old, the way they blinked and looked around, wondering what they were doing. As far as they were concerned, she didn't exist.

Turning, she used the pry-bar to smash the glass of the shopfront door. An alarm went off, the clangour loud in her ears. They were just beginning to react when she placed the bar in the leader's hand, folding his fingers around it. He looked down at the pry-bar, then at the smashed glass.

Sometimes they'd jump one way, sometimes they'd jump another. But these were criminals, used to breaking things and taking things. Certain actions were conditioned reflexes.

Not that Aisha was thinking quite that deeply. She just stepped out of the way and let him make his own mind up. He didn't take long.

"Come on," he shouted over the alarm. "We haven't got long!" Stepping forward, he wedged the pry-bar into the door-jamb and heaved. Metal shrieked and wood splintered; the door came open reluctantly.

Aisha strolled across to the other side of the street. Reaching into her jacket, she pulled out t a water-bottle and took a drink. She'd been pulling variations on this stunt over the last five nights since she had stolen the motorcycle; lure thugs to a place where there was an alarm. Set off alarm. Wait.

She had done this over and over again, more times than she wanted to count, and all she got was confused goons, the occasional cop, and Armsmaster once. This was, according to everything she had heard, the area that Shadow Stalker usually worked. Why isn't she here?

With a sigh, she tucked the water-bottle back into her jacket pocket. The Empire assholes were starting to emerge from the store, laden with their ill-gotten gains. Looks like a bust.

Just as she was turning away, she heard the shout of alarm.

Shadow Stalker arrived like an avenging angel. She hit first one goon, then another, never stopping long enough to get hit back. Cans rolled across the pavement, while bottles shattered as they were dropped. The sharp odour of spilled liquor came to Aisha's nose. Shadow Stalker's crossbows were in hand; she shot one goon after another, dropping them to the ground.

Yes! Yes! Fucking yes! Aisha hurried across the street, then paused as she saw one of the thugs producing a pistol. Whoa, fuck. This forget-me crap, or whatever it was, worked like a charm on people, but bullets would still go straight through her, and not in a good way.

She dived for cover behind a telephone pole as several shots rang out. None of them came near her, for which she was profoundly grateful. However, the fighting was still going on, so Shadow Stalker hadn't been hit either, which was kind of sucky.

The vigilante kicked one man, then punched another in the throat. She used the second one for cover and nailed the gunman with another arrow; the skinhead folded like a cheap suit. Seeing her chance, Aisha climbed to her feet and scuttled over to the nearest prone thug. Come on, you've gotta have gun or a knife or something.

With a grunt, she rolled him over, and there it was. Clipped on to his belt, in a scuffed leather sheath, he had a knife with a swastika at the top of the handle. Aisha didn't care; she pulled it free, then headed for the fight.

There were only two skinheads left on their feet, and they were hampered by the fact that Shadow Stalker never stayed solid for more than a second at a time. She was only a teenage girl, Aisha could see that, so she couldn't put them down with a single hit. But she could hit and then evade, something that she was obviously very practised at doing. See if you can dodge someone you can't see coming, bitch.

Unfortunately, Aisha quickly found that interfering in a fight between two grown men and a cape who could go insubstantial was still very hazardous. Nobody knew she was there, but that didn't make it any easier for her. They weren't standing still to trade blows; they were moving, turning, throwing punches and kicks. Shadow Stalker's blows hit, while theirs didn't, but it didn't make Aisha's job any easier. Come on, you chickenshits. At least hold her in one place for two seconds.

But it was not to be. Shadow Stalker kicked one in the groin, then went insubstantial, rolled through her opponent as he folded, then came up with a crossbow aimed at the other. A sharp twang and he went down.

Okay, fine. I'll do it myself. Aisha stepped up to Shadow Stalker, who was walking around, peering at her opponents. One groaned and began to get up; the vigilante kicked him viciously in the face. Aisha couldn't fault her actions; the Empire Eighty-Eight was about on the bottom rung as far as she was concerned, too.

But the bitch had killed Brian, so she had to go down. Closing the distance, Aisha stabbed Shadow Stalker in the back. Or at least, she tried to; the knife hit the back of the vigilante's cloak, then stopped dead. As Shadow Stalker looked around curiously, Aisha swore out loud. The bitch was wearing body armour.

Okay, let's try this again. Shadow Stalker still had no idea that she was being attacked; Aisha swung the knife at her throat. However, just as she did so, Shadow Stalker turned away; the blade slashed across her upper arm instead. Cloth parted and blood flowed.

"The fuck?" Shadow Stalker looked down at the wound; the backswing glanced off the hard material of her mask. "When did any of those fuckers tag me?"

Gathering herself, Aisha lunged forward, the point of her knife aiming at Shadow Stalker's throat. But just as she did so, the vigilante went insubstantial and leaped upward, scaling the side of the building far faster than Aisha could have climbed it.

Oh, for fuck's sake. Aisha darted back to the guy she'd stolen the knife off. Wrenching the sheath from his belt, she shoved the blade into it, then clipped it on to her belt. Looking up, she could still see Shadow Stalker on the edge of the rooftop. She seemed to be bandaging the wound.

I can't lose her this time. Ducking back into the alley, Aisha wheeled out the motorcycle she had stolen earlier in the week. Kicking it over, she kept her eyes focused on the edge of the roof, waiting to see what Shadow Stalker did next.

Sophia finished bandaging the slash on her upper arm. Can't believe one of those assholes managed to cut me, without me even noticing. Fuck, this was not a good start to my night. Triumph's gonna be all over my ass for ditching Kid Loser and then getting hurt.

Carefully, she worked the arm back and forth. The bleeding had stopped, but it hurt like a cast-iron bitch, and she was pretty sure that it would slow her down if she got into another fight. With an aggravated sigh, she turned to shadow and leaped from the rooftop. Time to go home and do some stitching. If I'm careful, nobody will notice I've been injured, and I don't have to go off duty again.

The only reason that Aisha managed to keep up with her as long as she did was the lack of traffic. There were so few other cars out there that she could ride on the wrong side of the road and run red lights with little in the way of danger. However, doing that and keeping track of Shadow Stalker was not the easiest thing in the world. She hung on to the vigilante's trail for three blocks, then lost her.


Pulling over to the side of the road, she dug a much-folded map of the city from a saddlebag. Opening it over the fuel tank, she drew two crosses with a stub of pencil; one was the location of the liquor store, and the other was the last point where she had seen Shadow Stalker.

Draw a line through this, and I've got a direction. It's not a location, but it's a start.

End of Part One